Saturday, 31 August 2013

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

 --The blurb--
"Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone's jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary."

--The review--
The recent news story about miniature human brains being grown in laboratories has the potential to spark a flurry of debate. The positives and negatives of such developments are equally legion. On the plus side, such in vitro experiments could allow neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia to be much better understood, and also enable a reduction in animal experimentation (ever a hot topic). However, on the more sinister side, others may argue that such experiments are the stuff of science fiction: they play God, pose a threat to our moral and ethical codes, and are the beginning of a slippery slope towards experiments that could have catastrophic consequences (such as the growth of fully-sized human brains). But forty-seven years ago, in true dystopian tradition, novelist Daniel Keyes was already predicting some of the disastrous after-effects of tampering with the human brain, in his debut, entitled Flowers For Algernon

The narrator, Charlie, who tells of his experiences epistolary-style through a series of progress reports, seems part-inspired by Lennie Small, the developmentally-delayed protagonist in John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men (published nearly 30 years before Flowers For Algernon, so already a classic by the time of Keyes' publication), thanks to the two characters' similarly well-meaning, easy-going attitudes, and their limited means of oral and written expression. However, Keyes does not produce a carbon copy of Lennie in Charlie, who is all his own character thanks to his keenness to learn and the unusual nature of the situation in which he has been placed. Despite Charlie's basic literacy, both his personality and the situation are expressed clearly, inspiring immediate affection in the reader. Sympathy is also invoked, as we are able to see aspects of the way people treat Charlie differently to how he views it; this, though, naturally changes as the story progresses.

As well as Charlie's understanding of the world around him, the style in which he writes also develops, with vocabulary choices becoming more sophisticated and spelling and punctuation errors disappearing, indicating his increasing intelligence. Keyes does not always manage this transition between entries smoothly, but this can be forgiven thanks to the largely uncharted nature of the surgery undergone by Charlie - in these circumstances, the notion of rapid or erratic progress is not entirely unrealistic, especially in the context of the unpredictable behaviour and progress already mentioned by Charlie in relation to murine test subject Algernon.

Algernon the mouse is key to the novel in more ways than simply providing an intriguing title. He provides a realistic basis for the surgery carried out on Charlie (scientific tests and new medicines are always carried out on animals before being tested on humans), but also a powerful precursor and foreshadow of Charlie's own fate. Less literally, the mouse - often perceived as modest and insignificant in both life and literature - symbolises the equally vulnerable position occupied not just by Charlie but by the disabled in general, who often find themselves at the mercy of those who are more powerful or simply more numerous. This is perhaps an even more significant symbol given that the disability rights movement and independent living movement were just beginning to get going in the decade in which Flowers For Algernon was published.

It is hardly surprising that the book has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1966. As well as the pathos evoked and the taut narrative arc being worthy of commendation, there is also the fact that the issues addressed by Keyes are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago. The novel's ability to alter perspectives on disability rights in a hard-hitting yet accessible style means that it should be read by every man, woman and teen, with Keyes successfully getting across his message that "foresight may be vain", and that "the best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry" - and all through a sci-fi-style ode to a man and a mouse.

other works by Daniel Keyes
The Touch (1968)
The Fifth Sally (1980)
The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981)
Unveiling Claudia (1986)
The Milligan Wars (1994)
Until Death (1998)
Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey (2000)
The Asylum Prophecies (2009)

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